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Religious Music in Spotlight

Buddhist and Taoist music may sound different from what most people are used to listening to, but actually, many are sometimes only too familiar with them to notice it.

The traditional music of wind and percussion instruments, which is still heard at funerals throughout northern parts of China, has many elements in line with Buddhist music.

Moon Reflected in the Erquan Spring, (Erquan Yingyue) one of China's best-known folk music works, was composed by Ah Bing (1893-1950), who was a Taoist devotee.

The vitality of Buddhist and Taoist music was most recently on display in the Showcase of Chinese Buddhist and Taoist Music, held last week in the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing.

The event offered people a chance to experience the living tradition of Buddhist and Taoist music through performances by six groups from Beijing and north China's Shanxi Province, east China's Jiangsu Province, Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region as well as from the island province of Taiwan.

What distinguishes these two concerts from common concerts may primarily lie in the attitudes that the performers -- all of them monks and nuns -- hold towards their music.

In two worlds

For the religious musicians, music functions not as an aesthetic activity, but as a means of religious practice or a tool to preach religious thought.

Accordingly, monks from the Wutai Mountains Buddhist Music Ensemble in Shanxi and Beijing Buddhist Music Ensemble demonstrated the two parts of Buddhist music.

The ritual part is played for divine beings, such as the Buddha, Bodhisattvas as well as hungry ghosts, while the more mundane part is played for the masses.

The ritual Buddhist music is usually played with only percussion instruments, such as cymbals, bell and wood fish (fish-figured wood block), which are believed to help meditation.

The popular Buddhist music, interrelated with the folk music using wind and percussion instruments popular in northern parts of China, uses instruments like the sheng, a piped mouth organ, the dizi, a bamboo flute and the guanzi, a kind of vertical wooden flute.

Located in north China's Shanxi Province, the Wutai Mountains are a centre for Chinese Buddhist music throughout history.

At the concert, the group from the Shuxiang Temple in the Wutai Mountains offered a pleasant contrast of the two kinds of Buddhist music. They chanted the ritual part of two temple music pieces in a highly consistent timbre, which must have come from a state of peace of mind.

In contrast, their two other works, as the titles Clean Vase (Jing Ping) and Moon High (Yue'er Gao) show, were obviously borrowed from folk music. Since ancient times, monks had been playing some folk and court music in ceremonies for the purpose of preaching.

The Beijing Buddhist Music Ensemble is well-known for their performances of Jing Music at the Zhihua Temple of Beijing. It has become a key representative of popular Buddhist music.

The ensembles from Shanxi and Beijing presented the salient music that has been handed down for generations, while their counterparts from the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Hymn Choir of Taiwan showed that ancient religious tunes could also be reformed and turned into a more artistic musical language.

The choir, which consisted of 30 monks and 31 nuns, performed with the accompaniment of a complete orchestra formed by students from the China Conservatory of Music. The instruments included not only the traditional folk Chinese stringed and bamboo instruments, but also the Western cello and double bass.

In addition, the choir used multi-part singing techniques at some points during their chanting. The borrowing of Western classical music elements enriched the effect of the group overall, making their performance sound more musical but at the same time less Buddhist.

The choir also added into their performance theatrical movements, as some members acted as sweeping the court and fetching water with a bucket, to feature the life in the temple.

All these correspond to the group's doctrine of "promoting humanistic Buddhism." In fact, Master Hsing Yun, founder of Fo Guang Shan, used to adopt modern songs as a bridge to draw more youth to Buddhism.

Earthly sounds

"Buddhist music pursues a peaceful and elegant sound, but Taoist music is more joyous and worldly," said Tian Qing, director of the Centre of Religious Arts at the Chinese Academy of Arts, which organized the event.

Indeed, in the music of the Gusu Celestial Music Ensemble from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, one can hear elements similar to silk and bamboo music, a genre of instrumental folk music popular in the areas south of the Yangtze River valley encompassing southern Jiangsu Province, Shanghai and Zhejiang Province.

The mellow timbre of the erhu and pipa instruments reminds one of Ah Bing, who wrote six precious compositions on the two instruments. The sanxian, a three-stringed plucking instrument, the yueqin, a four-stringed plucking instrument, the zheng, a 21-stringed plucking instrument, the sheng, a pipe mouth organ, and the dizi bamboo flute all added to the lyrical sounds.

Compared to the slow and even beats of Buddhist music, the drums in Taoist music were often played with syncopation.

The Baiyunguan Taoist Music Ensemble was formed by Taoist devotees from the Baiyunguan, a Taoist temple founded in AD 739 in Beijing. At the concert, the ensemble not only played Taoist music, but also demonstrated part of a Taoist rite, giving Taoist music an interpretation in its context.

Blessing from highlands

The most exciting performance was given by the Ensemble of Labrang Monastery. Located in Xiahe in Northwest China's Gansu Province, the Labrang Monastery was founded in 1709 and is one of the six most important monasteries of the Gelugpa or the Yellow sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

Cast in a mysterious atmosphere, the music of the Ensemble of Labrang Monastery led the audience into a world totally different from the Buddhist music of the Han people.

The 3-metre-long dung-chen, a large horn, produced a shockingly deep sound. It is said that such a sound, together with the dung-dkar (conch) and dung (trumpet), make the ghosts panic and Buddha happy. It is unknown whether the sound did so at the Wednesday concert, but it certainly did strike the audience with its power in Tashiyiki, a solemn tune for the occasion of offering to the Buddha.

Their second work Lama Dhandin is usually played as the Living Buddha takes his seat. It was a piece of DohDar music, in which instruments from the Han people such as the dizi and sheng are used.

In Mashong Shinlap, the ensemble displayed one of the most unique features of Tibetan Buddhist music by chanting in sustained, exceedingly low notes, which rippled and reverberated like an ocean of sound.

This is in keeping with the description in the Buddhist scriptures, "The Brahma voice flows and ebbs like the ocean, surpassing the worldly voice."

"It's not a voice from the vocal chords, but a sound from the depths of the soul," said Zong Zhe, leader of the ensemble.

The ensemble's last programme was another chanting piece called Nyaching, which invoked blessings for the land and for everyone in the audience.

"Wherever we chant -- in the monastery or concert hall, we chant to awaken and save people, " said Chenglai Gyainco, production director of the Ensemble of Labrang Monastery. "To dispel people's pain is the meaning of religion."

This can be taken as a note for all the music heard at the Showcase of Chinese Buddhist and Taoist Music, or maybe of any religious music we are fortunate enough to encounter.

(China Daily November 25, 2003)

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